The University of Indianapolis Graduate Programs hosted the first-ever Interprofessional Graduate Student Forum on Thursday, September 4, 2014. Students and faculty from several of the university’s three dozen graduate programs -- including physical therapy, occupational therapy, psychology, public health, applied sociology and gerontology -- attended the event to learn about the legacy of Henrietta Lacks, a woman who has been critically important to modern medicine since the 1950s, yet who was virtually unknown until 20 years after her death in 1951. The event gave students an opportunity to discuss in small groups topics such as informed consent, scientific research, privacy and ethics.
Henrietta Lacks, was a poor, black woman from Baltimore, Maryland whose cells were harvested in 1951 during surgery for cervical cancer. Unbeknownst to Henrietta or her family, the cells were sent to a laboratory where they became the first human cells to be successfully cultured and reproduced. Since then, the HeLa cells, as they are called, have been proliferated millions of times over and were integral in the development of the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, the understanding of how human cells behave in space, and many other scientific advances. The story of the HeLa cells is told in the 2010 book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” by author Rebecca Skloot.
At the Interprofessional Graduate Student Forum, Henrietta’s granddaughter, Kim Lacks, and her great-granddaughter, Veronica Spencer, took grad students and faculty on a virtual tour through the Lacks family album. They wanted to, they said, “help the students see Henrietta as both a woman and a medical contributor.”
The presentation included photos of the first time family members were able to view the HeLa cells under a microscope. “It felt like Henrietta was with us,” said Veronica Spencer, of the day they viewed the living cells of their deceased matriarch.
During their visit to UIndy, the two women wove a story that painted Henrietta as a person – a wife and a mother – not just a collection of cells in a petri dish. It was evident in their presentation that the Lacks family, who has never been compensated for the use of HeLa cells, is extremely proud of Henrietta’s contribution to medicine and science.
In a question-and-answer session following the presentation, Kim Lacks said Henrietta’s story has led several family members to pursue careers in medicine, including Veronica who is studying to be a registered nurse.
Veronica left the students, many of whom will be working in the medical field, with this admonition:
“You go to school and pay a lot of tuition to learn big fancy words, like ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.’ Then you get out and you want to use those big fancy words in your job, because you paid a lot for them. But you have to talk to people like you are talking to your family. If you talk to them with ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ and they don’t understand, you are robbing them of an opportunity for knowledge.”
Based on student feedback after the forum, Veronica’s words hit home. The University of Indianapolis Graduate Programs will continue to look for ways to bring graduate students together with opportunities for interdisciplinary learning.